“WHY?” they retort.
“Nona and Great-Gramie are going to be here this morning and I need your help getting this house cleaned. Why is it that we can’t keep it clean for more than an hour? I swear, as fast as I clean it is as fast as you mess it up. What is your problem?!”
“What’s your problem?” my son, the ten-going-on-teenager, shouts back.
“I don’t need your attitude, I need your HELP!”
Moments before, they were deep in their Saturday morning routine: laughing at cartoons, their only concern that the milk their cereal bowls didn’t slough off onto their laps. Now they are dragging themselves upstairs, bowls tossed a little too carelessly into the sink, the hems of their jammy pants dragging on the floor along with their spirits.
I take a deep breath and turn to the mess in the kitchen left over from last night’s dinner and out of the corner of my eye I see my husband, standing in the door way, eyes twinkling over his coffee.
“What?!” I snap. Who does he think he is with that damn twinkle?
“Nothing,” he says lightly, with a little head shake.
“Doesn’t look like nothing, it looks like you are enjoying yourself at my expense. You know, you could help out around here instead of looking so damned smug!”
“Sure,” he says, putting his coffee cup down, “I’d be happy to.”
“If you’d be happy to, why don’t you do it more often?” I start in again, “You know, you are as bad as the kids. Your sh*t is everywhere. Why can’t you just put things away when you are done with them?”
Honestly, am I the ONLY person who sees this mess? I look around, dishes and pans and condiments all over the counters. Blankets and socks and video game boxes all over the family room. In the living room is a chair piled so high with coats that there aren’t any coats left in the coat closet. There’s another chair with backpacks and bags, still another with basketball and soccer gear. The entry is strewn with shoes. The bathroom floor has a library of books scattered about. I feel like I’m going to go crazy.
“Am I the only person who sees this mess?” I say aloud this time,” Why do we live like this?!”
“Why does it only bother you when your family is coming over?”
“How many times do we have to have this conversation? It bothers me ALL the time! It looks like a bomb went off in here!” borrowing my mother’s phrase from my childhood, often used in a cleaning frenzy before members of my family would come over.
To this phrase she would often add, “Let’s get going! The ‘White Glove’ is coming!” A term of endearment, we called my grandma “The White Glove” because she’s just so damned clean. Even my cousin would talk about how she and her mom went into a cleaning tailspin before Gramie would come over.
I’m considering this propensity to freak out about cleaning, and whether or not I want my sons to carry on that particular family tradition, when my husband invades my thoughts with a line of questioning that makes me insane, probably because I know he’s right and I don’t want to admit it.
“Are you afraid they’ll see you are focused on raising your children? Teaching your classes? Writing your books? Going to grad school? Are you afraid that they’ll think those things might come before clearing the sink of last night’s dishes?” he challenged.
“NO!” I shouted, “I’m afraid I’ll be buried alive under THE MESS OF THIS HOUSE!”
“Well then, I guess we better clean it up,” he laughed, walking away. Leaving me to consider what a jackass I am.
This mess? It’s equal part mine. I have two coats in that pile, three pairs of shoes in the entry, a bag and two purses on the chair. With the exception of the sporting equipment and the books in the bathroom (who needs 10 books in the bathroom, by the way?), each and every mess around this house has me in it. I love a clean house, but he’s right, I have had to prioritize my time because of the joyful madness that fills my days and cleaning has found itself ranked pretty low.
However, cleaning’s place on the list is probably right where it should be. Below my children, my school, my students, my writing…even below Project Runway (because, after all, a girl has got to rest at least once a week!). So why am I freaking out three hours ahead of my grandmother coming over in fear she’ll see the wreck of my house?
Before I answer, let me preface the discussion with the fact that my grandmother is among the sweetest women I know. She’s kind and loving and compassionate; she very rarely raises her voice or uses foul language, instead choosing words like “sugar” or “gosh-darn-it.”
To illustrate this point, in my classroom I have only one rule, “The Grandma Rule.” I tell my students about my grandma and how the only thing they need to do to monitor their behavior is act as if my grandma was in the room. No swearing, no inappropriate talk, no disrespectful comments. Listen when others are speaking, contribute for the better of the group, and work as a team. All of these things fall in under The Grandma Rule, and, if they forget, they have to say two very important words, “Sorry Grandma!”
Under the Grandma Rule there is only one more thing you can’t do: leave a mess. My grandma kept the cleanest house of anyone I ever knew. Having the privilege of living with my grandparents for my formative years I witnessed this impeccable housekeeping every day. She considered it part of her job to keep the house in such condition. My grandpa worked outside the home, my grandma worked inside–raising the children and taking care of the house, including everyone and everything in it. She took pride in her work, just as my grandpa did his. Roles were clear, and the work got done accordingly.
I think this was probably pretty similar experience for most women of this generation. Even those who had to work a job outside of the house still were expected to keep a proper home. If women didn’t have a tidy home (and well-behaved children), they were judged harshly as a result—most harshly by the other women in their lives. To add to that social pressure, my grandma grew up in a violent home where if she or my great-grandmother took a wrong step they sometimes found themselves hit with a fist or whipped with a leather strap. Is it a wonder why no one’s house was cleaner that hers? I think not.
Fast forward several decades and I find myself doing things my grandmothers and great-grandmothers would never have dreamed for themselves. The trouble is, women of previous generations were judged by the appearance of their home and children; women today are judged—again most harshly by other women in their lives–by their home and their children as well as the quality of their education and the state of their careers.
It’s a load that’s just too damned heavy to carry. And today, in the midst of the mess in my house and the madness of my outburst, I have no choice but to surrender. I can’t do it any more. I give up.
As I ponder the possibility of really letting go of trying to keep my house perfectly (or even reasonably) clean, the phone rings. It’s my mom.
“Just wanted to let you know the White Glove can’t make it today, it’ll just be me. I didn’t want you stressing for nothing!” she laughs.
I laugh too, in total relief. Not that she’s not coming, but that I’ve finally realized that the only person who can judge me, is me. And I’m not doing it anymore.
Should you ever have the opportunity to visit my home during the school year you will find a mess–the living room, the kitchen, the family room, and the bathroom floor. If you venture upstairs you’ll find beds unmade, towels not hung up, and laundry overflowing out of baskets. Don’t wear black, because if you choose to sit you will likely have cat hair attach itself to your clothes. The kitchen table might be sticky from breakfast; you might have to use a mismatched glass because the matching ones are spread out all over the house. The yards won’t be raked or weeded and if you want to sit in a chair outside you’ll have to wipe it down first. In short, most everything about my house will be a mess.
That said, my first book will be published by the end of this month and the next following soon after. I’ll be done with grad school by the end of the year. This June I will graduate 36 students from high school, with another 72 heading into their senior year, making the total students who have passed through my classroom door somewhere near 2,200. My sons will be ten and seven this year–smart, gorgeous, mostly socially acceptable boys who I know are going to grow into pretty amazing young men. I will celebrate my 15th wedding anniversary this fall, something not even I was sure would happen a few years ago. I am happy and my life has exceptional purpose.
In embracing what’s important and letting go of what doesn’t serve me, I’m liberated. If not from your judgement, than from my own.
Given that, I think even the White Glove might even be ok with the mess.